Blues harmonica player
Beginning his career in the early 1950s as musical disciple of harmonica legend John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson, Junior Wells entered the following decade as a dynamic Chicago blues performer. By the early 1960s Wells’s singing and performance style fell under the heavy influence of soul singer James Brown. After decades of playing in corner taverns, he has emerged as top attraction at music festivals and nightclubs around the world. Best known for long-time association with guitarist Buddy Guy, he continues to appear both as a solo act and in collaborations with his longtime guitar associate—a duo act that has, over the span of thirty years, introduced white rock musicians and mass audiences to the sounds of Chicago blues.
Born Amos Blackmore on December 9, 1934, in Memphis, Tennessee, Junior Wells was raised on a farm near Marion, Arkansas. During his youth his family took up residence in the rough ghetto of West Memphis, Arkansas, where he received his first instruction on harmonica from Herman “Little Junior” Parker.
In 1946 Wells moved with mother to Chicago. Two years later, while still under age, he made his way into the C&T Lounge to watch guitarist Tampa Red and pianist Johnnie Jones perform. Allowed to sit-in with the elder musicians, he recalled how, as quoted in the lines notes to Hoodoo Man Blues, “The owner put me out front of the place with my amplifier. The cop on the beat said I better get inside the tavern and play.” In Chicago Wells also met harmonica giant John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson. “By the time I had met Sonny Boy,” Wells told Larry Birnbaum in Down Beat, “I already had my basic style and I thought I could play, but when I listened to him I knew I had a long way to go. He sounded so much more professional than I did, and I wanted to pick up some pointers.”
In 1950 he met the musical duo of Mississippi-born musicians Arthur “Big Boy” Spires and Louis Meyers at a neighborhood party. Later, Louis Meyers’ brother Dave replaced Spires, and they, along with Wells, formed a trio, The Little Chicago Devils. Eventually, the group took the name the Three Deuces, and then the Three Aces; with the addition of former jazz drummer Fred Below the unit then became known as the Four Aces. In 1952 Muddy Waters’ harmonica player, Little Walter Jacobs left the Waters band to embark on a solo career. Wells, who had already befriended Waters and sat-in with his band on several occasions, took Little Walter’s place as Waters’ harmonica sideman.
Accompanied by his former back-up band, the Aces, Wells made his recording debut on Leonard Allen’s
For the Record …
Born Amos Blackmore, December 9, 1934, Memphis, Tennessee.
Around 1941 began playing harmonica on the streets of West Memphis; sat-in with local Chicago bands 1948 and formed own group; became harmonica player in the Muddy Waters band 1952-1953; recorded for States label 1953-1954; drafted into US Army 1953-1954; briefly worked with Muddy Waters band 1955; reformed own band to perform local clubs 1956-1958; toured extensively with Buddy Guy 1958-; recorded for Profile label 1959; recorded with Buddy Guy on Vanguard label 1965; recorded for Delmark label 1966; 1970 recorded for Atlantic Records; toured festivals worldwide 1970s to present.
Address: Record company—Telacrc Records 23307 Commerce Park Rd., Cleveland OH 44122.
States label in 1953. On the session were guest musicians pianist Johnnie Jones, and guitarist Elmore James. The studio line-up produced the commercially successful sides “Eagle Rock” and “Cut that Out.” These numbers were followed by a Little Walter-influenced instrumental “Junior’s Wail” and a cover of John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson’s “Hoodoo Man.” Accompanied by pianist Henry Gray, “Hoodoo Man,” wrote Mike Rowe in Chicago Blues, “achieved an easy relaxed swing as Junior blew beautifully controlled harp and the versatile Louis Meyers switched to slide guitar.” In April of 1954, a second session for States—recorded when Wells was AWOL from the army—brought him together with the talents of pianist Otis Spann, Muddy Waters, and the session’s bassist and producer Willie Dixon. In Down Beat Pete Welding described Wells’s musicianship on the States sessions: “Wells’s youthful enthusiasm and vitality were perfectly tempered by his com-mendably mature mastery and control, and these buttressed stunningly by the marvelous, sensitive accompanists he was provided.”
The experience with the Waters band, however, ended with his matriculation into the army. Before leaving for the service, he recorded one side with the Waters on the Chess label in 1954, “Standing Around Crying.” Discharged from the army a year later, he rejoined the Muddy Waters Band before reforming the Three Aces with Syl Johnson, Dave Meyers, and Fred Below, to work Chicago’s Du Drop Inn, on Wentworth Avenue. Around 1957, he signed a recording contract with Mel London’s Chief Records’ and cut such sides as “TwoHeaded Woman,” “I Could Cry,” “Cha Cha Cha in Blue,” and London’s “Lovey Dovey Lovey One,” the latter two of which featured bassist Willie Dixon. As Mike Rowe pointed out in Chicago Blues, Wells’s ten sides for Chief “accounted for about a quarter of the label’s total output.”
By 1958 Wells began to appear with guitarist Buddy Guy at Pepper’s Lounge at 503 E. 43rd Street, and a South Side basement club, Theresa’s, at the corner of 48th Street and Indiana. Guy had first heard the older harmonica stylist in his native Baton Rouge while performing on a package blues show in 1956. After he came to Chicago in 1957, Guy met Wells with whom he would later form the most enduring duo acts of modern Chicago blues.
Wells returned to the studio in 1959 to record for Mel London’s Profile label. Accompanied by guitarists Earl Hooker and David Meyers, pianist Lafayette Leake, and Willie Dixon, he cut London’s biggest hit, “Little by Little,” which reached twenty-three on the Billboard R&B charts in June 1960. With its gospel-like background vocals, “Little By Little” marked Wells’s departure from the traditional Chicago blues formula. In October 1960, he recorded his first, and perhaps his most definitive rendition, of London’s “Messin’ With The Kid” for Chief—a number that retained a latin-rhythm feel which became lost in Wells’s later, and many would argue much less inspired, versions. In 1960 Guy satinon Wells’s session that produced the number “Let Me Love You Baby.” A year later, Wells continued to record for Chief, cutting several more sides until the company folded that the same year.
In the mid-1960s Bob Koester, owner of the small Chicago-based Delmark label, heard Junior Wells perform at Theresa’s Lounge, and invited him to record for his label. Wells then contacted Guy, and brought together bassist Jack Meyers, and drummer Billy Warren to record the critically acclaimed 1966 Delmark album, Hoodoo Man, which became a cult recording for a younger generation of bluesmen and white listeners. The winner of Down Beat magazine’s best R&B album, Hoodoo Man proved an artistic breakthrough for Wells. On the LP he paid tribute to John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson in the numbers “Early in the Morning” and “Hoodoo Man.” The recording is rife with the influence of James Brown, most notably on the latin-tinged number “Snatch It Back and Hold It,” on which Wells sings: “You know I ain’t got no brand new bag.” In his review of the LP, Jeff Hannusch commented, in The Blackwell Guide to Blues Records: “The team of Guy and Wells is at its best here as they reel off some of the rawest Chicago blues this side of Muddy Waters and Little Walter. There is not a dull moment.” At this same time, the emergence of white harmonica stylists like Paul Butterfield and Charlie Musselwhite, helped Wells gain greater notoriety among white folk and college audiences. He too began too appear regularly at numerous festivals and on College campuses.
In 1966 Wells appeared on Vanguard Record’s series, Chicago/Blues/Today! Vol. I. Produced by Samuel Charters, Wells’s contributions to the volume included the numbers “Messin’ With the Kid,” “Checking up on My Baby,” “Tribute to Sonny Boy Williamson,” and a reworking J.B. Lenoir’s “My Brother’s in Korea” retitled “Viet Cong Blues.” During the same year, he toured abroad with American Folk Blues Festival. Wells’s 1966 Vanguard Lp It’s My Life contained tracks recorded live at Pepper’s Lounge with Guy, drummer Fred Below, and bassist Leroy Stewart. On the LP’s studio numbers Little Al replaced Freddie Below on drums and Walter Beas-ley was added on rhythm guitar.
In tribute to the Wells’s musical activity at Theresa’s, Delmark Records brought him together with Guy, guitarist Louis Meyers, pianist Otis Spann, bassist Earnest Johnson, and drummer Fred Below, to record the 1970 album Junior Wells’s Southside Blues Jam. Present during the session, Bruce Iglauer, as quoted in Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues, recalled how “Junior had come into the studio not having the slightest idea of what he was going to record. Spann was reminding him of old songs.” Through Spann’s influence the band fell into playing several traditional numbers. The Lp’s improvisatory late night feel contained several moments of strong performance as evidenced in Wells’s rendition of Robert Johnson’s “Stop Breaking Down” (which in turn inspired a cover by the Rolling Stones). In the Blues on CD: The Essential Guide, Charles Shaar Murray wrote, “South Side Blues Jam was a defiant hymn of pride and belief in the value of a music then facing seemingly inevitable commercial decline.”
In 1970 Wells and Guy toured Europe with the Rolling Stones, opening for the rock group in 45 minute sets. Backstage, Wells enjoyed the company of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, both of whom he regarded as “down to earth people.” That same year, English blues-rock guitarist, Eric Clapton, organized a recording session with Wells for Atlantic Records. Serving as a sideman and a producer, Clapton brought Wells and Guy into Criteria studio in Miami, with a line-up which included saxophonist A.C. Reed and New Orleans keyboardist Dr. John. In Crossroads: The Life and Music of Eric Clapton, Michael Schumacher, explained how the English guitarist’s drug addiction affected the success of the recording: “Unfortunately, for all concerned, Clapton was in terrible shape when he arrived at Criteria Studios for the sessions. He had not used heroin in several days, and he was feeling the torturous effects of withdrawal.” In no shape to serve as the session’s producer, Clapton later admitted, as quoted in Damn Right I Got the Blues, “I shouldn’t have been there. I was sweating and dying inside.” The end result was a lackluster set of performances which sat on Atlantic’s shelf for two years until its release as the LP Buddy Guy and Junior Wells Play the Blues.
Another Wells and Guy effort, Drinkin’ TNT and Smokin’ Dynamite, produced by Rolling Stone’s bassist Bill Wyman, too evoked much criticism for its uninspired performance. Recorded live in Montreux, Switzerland, Drinkin’ TNT and Smokin’ Dynamite, in 1974, the LP featured Rolling Stones Wyman, Muddy Waters’ pianist Pinetop Perkins, and Crosby, Stills and Nash drummer Dallas Taylor. Outside of some bright moments from Guy, the album offers little from Wells who runs through the list of his familiar covers.
While in Paris during a European tour in 1981, Wells and Guy recorded as an acoustic duo which brought forth Going Back for the French Isabel label. It was then leased to Alligator Records under the title Buddy Guy and Junior Wells: Alone and Acoustic. “The results,” wrote Alligator Record’s Bruce Iglauer in the LP’s liner notes, “were an hour of relaxed blues, with many of the lyrics improvised on the spot. Together they paid homage to the Deep South acoustic blues from which their contemporary music sprang.” Despite Iglauer’s endorsement, the album suffered from, as critic Ashley Khan noted in Living Blues, “floating verses devoid of inspiration,” and numbers not accurately credited to the original authors.
At this time, Wells’s still maintained his Chicago home base at Theresa’s, and often performed at Guy’s Checkerboard Lounge. Over the following decade Wells headlined around the world as a solo artist and often with Buddy Guy, the current reigning king of Chicago blues guitar. Billed as the “Original Blues Brothers” the dou’s performances, like their recordings, have proved, to the most part, disappointing efforts to those familiar with the quality of their earlier musicianship. Bluesman John Hammond Jr., as quoted in Damn Right I Got the Blues, perhaps best expressed the inconsistency which has marred many of their live performances: “I’ve been on so many shows where Buddy and Junior get up there, and it’s a parody of the blues… and yet I’ve seen them on another night and gotten that old feeling [when] they play a set that’s just magnificent.” Despite the criticism of his current performances, Wells remains, within an age of lesser blues talents and rock imitators one of the last of the great Chicago harmonica/singers. As he told Larry Birnbaum, in Down Beat, “I’m a dedicated blues singer and I’ll go down with the ship. I’ll never give up.”
Junior Wells, Blues Hit Big Town, Delmark.
Junior Wells, Messin’ With the Kid 1957-1963 Vol. I, Paula Records.
Junior Wells, Messin’ With the Kid 1957-1963 Vol. II, Paula Records.
Hoodoo Man Blues, Delmark, 1965.
Junior Wells’s Southside Blues Jam, Delmark, 1970.
It’s My Life Baby!, Vanguard.
Comin’At You, Vanguard.
Drinkin’ TNT Smokin’ Dynamite, Blind Pig Records.
Pleading the Blues, Evidence.
Undisputed Godfather of Blues, GBW.
Buddy Guy & Junior Wells, Alone and Acoustic, Alligator, 1991.
Better off With the Blues, Telarc, 1993.
Everybody’s Gettin’ Some, Telarc, 1995.
Chicago Blues Today! Vol. I, Vanguard, 1966.
The Best of the Chicago Blues, Vanguard.
Blues Masters The Essential Collection, Vol. 4 Harmonica, Rhino, 1992.
Murray, Charles Shaar, Blues on CD: The Essential Guide. 1993.
The Blackwell Guide to the Blues, edited by Paul Oliver, Basil Blackwell Inc, 1989.
Rowe, Mike, Chicago Blues: The Music and the City, Da Capo, 1975.
Schumacher, Michael, Crossroads: The Life and Music of Eric
Clapton, Hyperion, 1995.
Wilcock, Donald E. with Buddy Guy, Damn Right I Got the Blues, Woodford Press, 1993.
Down Beat, February 1980.
Living Blues, Summer/Fall 1981.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from the liner notes of Buddy Guy and Junior Wells: Alone and Acoustic, Alligator, 1991, by Bruce Iglauer and Junior Wells Blues Hit Big Town and Hoodoo Man Blues, Delmark, by Bob Koester.
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